“Evangelical”: A helpful term?
What is an “evangelical”? The word itself derives from the Greek word euangelion, which means “gospel” or “good news.” So, based solely on the etymology of the word, an “evangelical” is someone who believes the good news about Jesus Christ. By that definition Orthodox Presbyterians and other biblical Christians can rightly be described as “evangelicals”. But is that how the word is used today, and is “evangelical” even a helpful term today?
It used to be that in the Christian world the term “evangelical” had a clear meaning. It was basically synonymous with “Protestant.” It is my understanding that in the era of the Protestant Reformation you were an “evangelical” if you were a Christian who was not a Roman Catholic. You were an evangelical if you believed that the Bible as God’s Word is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice (Sola Scriptura – “Scripture Alone”), if you confessed the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (Sola Fide – “Faith Alone”), and if you held membership in an Evangelical (i.e., Protestant) Church. By contrast, Roman Catholics rejected “Sola Scriptura” in favor of Scripture plus Tradition, they rejected “Sola Fide” in favor of justification by a faith-plus-works combination, and they retained their membership in the “mother church” in submission to the Roman Pontiff (the “Pope”).
After the so-called “Enlightenment” and with the rise of both rationalistic approaches to Bible scholarship (“higher criticism”) and liberal theology (aka “modernism”), many of the historically “Evangelical” (i.e., mainline Protestant) churches began to be infiltrated by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit alien to the biblical worldview and classic Christian orthodoxy. The inspiration and authority of the Bible were questioned, downplayed or reinterpreted; the supernatural and miraculous events recorded in Scripture were given natural explanations or otherwise explained away; and key doctrines of classical Christian orthodoxy such as the Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and His bodily resurrection, were either downplayed or “reinterpreted” as edifying metaphors for spiritual “truth” divorced from any historical reality. With the rise of higher criticism and modernist theology in the mainline churches, it became clear that many of these church bodies were no longer consistently “Evangelical” in the classic Protestant sense.
Christians within the mainline denominations who continued to believe in the doctrines of classic Christian orthodoxy and the Protestant Reformation sometimes distinguished themselves from the liberal churchmen in their communions by calling themselves “fundamentalists” – a term that originally had a positive meaning in that it described holding on to the “fundamentals” of historic Christianity. But soon this term became a term of derision, a smear label that came to be associated with a narrow anti-intellectualism and dogmatic fanaticism. (Ironically, quite a number of the contributers of articles to the volumes called “The Fundamentals” – from which the term “fundamentalism” is historically derived – were actually articulate and well-educated churchmen and theologians who were anything but anti-intellectual.) To distinguish themselves from the more militantly “fundamentalist” wing of the church, some churchmen began to use the label “evangelical.” Unable to reform their own denominations, it seems the evangelicals increasingly reached beyond denominational lines to cooperate with those identified as “evangelicals” within other denominational traditions.
Since the problem of liberal theology was one that impacted (and continues to impact) nearly all of the mainline Protestant churches, evangelicals within the various churches often cooperated with professing evangelicals of other denominations in missions, evangelism and service. Parachurch missionary organizations, voluntary societies and other service organizations came into being by the droves, even as denominational missions and service agencies were often in decline. With the rise of this “neo-evangelicalism” around the mid-1900’s, the term “evangelical” shifted in meaning and emphasis from referring to a Christian who held to Protestant convictions and belonged to a Protestant church, to describing a Christian who held to the inerrancy of Scripture and had a personal conversion experience (often understood, it seems, as a dramatic crisis conversion experience in the revivalistic sense of the term “conversion”).
The reader should take note of this important shift. Originally the term “evangelical” involved a clear doctrinal position (the historic Protestant one) and a Protestant doctrine of the church. The focus of the term was on doctrine and ecclesiology. Nowadays the focus of the term “evangelical” tends to be centered on a believer’s conversion experience and has very little to do with doctrine (other than the vital doctrine of biblical inerrancy). This hit home to me a number of years ago when I came across a book written by a Roman Catholic author entitled Evangelical Catholic. In skimming the book, I recall the author claiming to have had a powerful conversion experience which resulted in him coming to a personal relationship with Christ, but ultimately he decided to return to the Roman Catholic communion. Clearly this Roman Catholic author was not using the term “evangelical” in its original sense of “Protestant” or in the sense of “loyal to the gospel of justification by faith alone,” but as a way of describing his personal religious experience and his zeal to promote his faith.
Today one can find professed “evangelicals” who deny that Christ is the only way to salvation (contrary to John 14:6); who question the doctrine of substitutionary atonement; who deny the doctrine of hell (Rob Bell, anyone?); who believe homosexuality and gay “marriage” are compatible with Christian discipleship (Matthew Vines?); who deny a historical Adam and Eve (Peter Enns); who are reformulating the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone in a very unprotestant direction (Federal Vision theologians); etc. There are “evangelicals” who refuse or neglect to become responsible members in any local church. There are even “evangelical catholics”! When the term “evangelical” is divorced from a clear confession of faith and from a clear doctrine of the church, as it often is, then it becomes a useless wax nose that can mean anything to anybody.
As I see it there are only two options: (1) Either return to the original meaning of the term “Evangelical”; or (2) Dump the term altogether.
Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham by D.G. Hart (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, copyright 2004 by D.G. Hart)